Alternative spellings: Sesa, Sesha, Seshu, Sheha,  Shesha 
Alternative names: Sesanaga, Virupaksha,  Ananta Deva 
Titles: The Cosmic Serpent,  The World Serpent 
Translation: See the Names of Ananta Sesha
Type/Species: Naga, Hydra
Origin: Brahmanic and Hindu Mythology, India; The Mahabharata, The Ramayana, The Brahmanas, The Puranas
The Names of Ananta Sesha
Sometimes the combined name Ananta Sesha is translated as 'the Endless One.' 
About Ananta Sesha
Ananta Sesha was the King of the Naga.  He was the first-born among snakes,  sometimes referred to as a serpent deity  or the sovereign of all Nagas.  In the Mahabharata, he was "the first of all Nagas." 
He lived in the nether regions  as one of the Naga kings who ruled the underworld Patala,  and he traveled the universe filled with great joy.  Each of his many heads had a cobra-like hood,  venom, and the ability to spew fire. 
Kadru cursed Sesha and his brethren when several obedient serpents claimed that Kadru's request to cover a horse to make it appear black was impossible. She condemned them, saying "May you be burnt by fire."  Sesha, a pious Naga, separated himself from his siblings to practice austerities,  "repairing to Gandhamadana, Vadri, Gokarna, the woods of Pushkara, and the foot of Himavat."  So harsh were his sacrifices that even Brahma noticed his works, and he spoke with Ananta Sesha and counseled him not to mourn the fate of his siblings.  Then Brahma granted Sesha any blessing he desired, and the great serpent asked that his mind forever rejoice in virtue, peace, and asceticism.  Please with his request, Brahma asked Sesha to support the earth, so that it would remain steady. 
Thus, Ananta Sesha became the bearer of the earth  as well as the serpent in the cosmic waters where Vishnu rested during the moments between the manifestations of the universe.  It is said that Vishnu dreamt the universe while resting on Sesha.  He also supported Vishnu in his incarnation as a boar by hold up one of his feet as he rose from the waters. 
Therefore, Sesha was called the cosmic serpent in Hindu mythology,  and in post-Vedic literature, he became known as the world serpent,  as he upheld the very globe of the earth.  Though this evokes a parallel with the Nordic Midgard Serpent Jormugand, who was a ferocious dragon waiting to destroy the gods, the descriptions of Sesha as the world serpent show that he was pious, austere, and abstinent. 
The encounter between Brahma and Sesha illustrated his behavior:
And the Grandsire of all, Brahma, saw that ascetic with knotted hair, clad in rags, and his [Sesha's] flesh, skin, and sinews dried up owing to the hard penances he was practising. And the Grandsire addressing him, that penance-practising one of great fortitude, said, 'What is that thorn doest, O Sesha? Let the welfare of the creatures of the worlds also engage thy thoughts. O sinless one, thou art afflicting all creatures by thy hard penances.'
-- Mahabharata 1.36 
In the Suparnadhyaya, an earlier text, Sesha was asked to beat the mountaintops,  so no matter how tranquil he was, he possessed the strength and will of his brethren, the Nagas.
Sesha's substantial change has been described:
The Bhagavân Ananta [Sesha] Deva is of boundless strength; His attributes are infinite; He is the ocean of infinite qualities. He is the Âdi Deva, of a very good nature and His Nature is highly luminous. He has abandoned anger and envy and He wants the welfare of all. All the Devas worship Him and He is the repository of all Sâttvic qualities.
-- Bhagavatam 8.20.1-37 
While Sesha held a principle role in the universe, some texts describe his rank differently,  especially in relation to the other prominent Naga kings, such as Takshaka and Vasuki. In the Mahabharata and the Puranas, Sesha was the first of all Naga, but the second of all Naga, Vasuki, ruled over the Naga because Sesha was far too busy supporting the earth or the supreme deity.  Texts sometimes allotted Vasuki the title The First Among Serpents, while Ananta Sesha was known as the chief of the Nagas.  Another source declared Vasuki the King of the Nagas, Takshaka the King of the Snakes, and Sesha the king of all fanged beings.  In all accounts, Sesha possessed the superior rank.
The Origins of Ananta Sesha
The origins of Ananta Sesha vary.
Alternatively, Balarama fell asleep along the shore of the sea. While he slept, a vast serpent emerged from his mouth, eventually absorbing the entire body, so only his head witnessed the transformation.  In the Puranas, Balarama was considered an incarnation of Sesha. 
The origins of Ananta Sesha are various, but one tradition relates how Balarama, the sun-god's brother, fell asleep on the sea shore. As he slept a vast serpent emerged from his mouth and, in the process, took all the body of the sleeper, leaving only the bodiless head as witness to the transformation. 
Supporting the World
Sesha bears the entire world, like a diadem, upon his head, and he is the foundation on which the seven Patalas rest. His power, his glory, his form, his nature, cannot be described, cannot he comprehended by the gods themselves. Who shall recount his might, who wears this whole earth, like a garland of flowers, tinged of a purple dye by the radiance of the jewels of his crests. When Ananta, his eyes rolling with intoxication, yawns, then earth, with all her woods, and mountains, and seas, and rivers, trembles...
...the earth, sustained upon the head of this sovereign serpent, supports in its turn the garland of the spheres, along with their inhabitants, men, demons, and gods.
-- Vishnu Purana 2.5 
He obtained the role of carrying the world as a blessing from Brahma, who told Sesha not to grieve for his brethren and their fate.  Then he asked the great serpent what boon he desired.  His reply can be found in the following excerpt from the Mahabharata:
Sesha replied, 'O divine Grandsire, this is the boon desired by me; viz., may my heart always delight in virtue and in blessed ascetic penances, O Lord of all!'
Brahman said, 'O Sesha, I am exceedingly gratified with this thy self-denial and love of peace. But, at my command, let this act be done by thee for the good of my creatures. Bear thou, O Sesha, properly and well this Earth so unsteady with her mountains and forests, her seas and towns and retreats, so that she may be steady.'
Sesha said, 'O divine Lord of all creatures, O bestower of boons, O lord of the Earth, lord of every created thing, lord of the universe, I will, even as thou sayest hold the Earth steady. Therefore, O lord of all creatures, place her on my head.'
Brahman said, 'O best of snakes, go underneath the Earth. She will herself give thee a crevice to pass through. And, O Sesha, by holding the Earth, thou shalt certainly do what is prized by me very greatly.'
Sauti continued, 'Then the elder brother of the king of the snakes, entering a hole, passed to the other side of the Earth, and holding her, supported with his head that goddess with her belt of seas passing all round.'
Brahman said, 'O Sesha, O best of snakes, thou art the god Dharma, because alone, with thy huge body, thou supportest the Earth with everything on her, even as I myself, or Valavit (Indra), can.'
-- Mahabharata 1.36 
When Sesha consented to carry it, the earth itself made an opening so that he could support it from beneath.  From then on, he carried the earth on top of his thousand hoods,  encompassing the earth with his coils.  On many occasions came to the world, in one form or another, to protect it. 
The Churning of the Ocean
The story of the Churning of the Ocean can be found in many texts, including the Brahmanas, the Puranas, and the Mahabarata. 
The Devas wanted to churn the oceans to obtain the amrita,  but they could not move the Sumeru,  or in some versions Mount Mandara,  which was to be the churning stick, so they sought aid from Brahma and Vishnu. 
At the command of Vishnu and Brahma, Ananta Sesha lifted up the entire mountain.  Alternatively, the gods tied Ananta Sesha to Mount Mandara,  sometimes with the Naga Vasuki, as a rope to churn the Ocean of Milk. 
The Devas and the Daityas then made the Golden Mountain (the Sumeru) the churning rod, the Deva Kurma (the tortoise), the churning pot and Ananta Deva (the thousand headed serpent) the churning cord and began to churn the ocean.
-- Bhagavatam 9.41.48-59 
- the physician of the gods Dhanvantari 
- the horse Uchchaihs Rava 
- the elephant Airavata 
- the goddess Lakshmi 
- invaluable jewels 
- the nectar, also called the amrita 
Thus, Ananta Sesha aided the gods in establishing a pivot point to churn the oceans to give rise to countless invaluable treasures. 
The Repose of Vishnu
Visnu, from whose navel lotus Brahma is born, lies in Yoga sleep on the bed of Ananta (the thousand headed serpent) in the time of Pralaya. so how can we call Bhagavan Visnu who rests on the thousand headed serpent Ananta as the creator of the universe? Again the refuge of Ananta is the water of the ocean Ekarnava; a liquid cannot rest without a vessel...
-- Bhagavatam 1.2.6-10 
Ananta Sesha remains alive during periods of divine rest, when the world is reabsorbed into the creator,  referred to as the night of Brahma.  During this time, the great serpent floats in the primal sea  and coils up his vastness  to act as a bed  or couch  for Vishnu, who then is called Ananta-Shayana, meaning 'one who sleeps on Ananta.' 
The Many Wonders of Sesha
Ananta Sesha possessed many fantastic abilities, including the ability to produce venom and fire,  the size and strength to support the earth,  and the potency to spread perfume throughout the skies. 
Gandharbas, Apsarasas, Siddhas, Kinnaras, Uragas, and Charanas are unequal to hymn his praises, and therefore he is called the infinite (Ananta), the imperishable. The sandal paste, that is ground by the wives of the snake-gods, is scattered abroad by his breath, and sheds perfume around the skies.
-- Vishnu Purana 2.5 
According to the Varahamihira, rainbows are solar rays, pressed by the wind, till they appear in the sky as a bow; thus, those serpents in Ananta's family cast rainbows with their exhalations.  The Ramayana explains that Sesha had his seat in the East, where visitors could witness wonders like the Rishabha, the Milk Ocean, and the Golden Mountains. 
Legendary Offspring, Incarnations, and Connections
Sesha left his siblings to purify himself. When asked about his choices, Sesha replied:
My uterine brothers are all of wicked hearts. I do not desire to live amongst them. Let this be sanctioned by thee. Like enemies they are always jealous of one another. I am, therefore, engaged in ascetic devotions. I will not see them even. They never show any kindness for Vinata and her son. Indeed, Vinata's son capable of ranging through the skies, is another brother of ours. They always envy him. And he, too, is much stronger owing to the bestowal of that boon by our father, the high-souled Kasyapa. For these, I engaged in ascetic penances, and I will cast off this body of mine, so that I may avoid companionship with them, even in another state of life.
-- Mahabharata 1.36 
The Puranas equate Ananta Sesha with Balarama or Sankarshana, an incarnation of Sesha, often combining the attributes of the great serpent and the demigod. 
Sesha did take on an incarnation, where he took "upon him the condition of humanity, to accomplish some object cherished in his heart."  As a human being, he "thus engaged in wandering amidst the forests with the herdsmen, in the disguise of a mortal." 
Ananta Sesha had a son named Salivahana; with Sesha's help, Salivahana slew Vikramaditya.  He taught the sage Garga the principles of astronomy and the aspects of the heavens.  Others have assumed Ananta's form as an illusion. In the great epic Mahabharata, Iravanat used maya to assume the form of Ananta while in combat surrounded by nagas. Unfortunately, a rakshasa named Alambusha also used maya and assumed the form of Garuda. Alambusha then devoured all the nagas and slew Iravanat with a sword. 
Below the seven Patalas is the form of Vishnu, proceeding from the quality of darkness, which is called Sesha, the excellencies of which neither Daityas nor Danavas can fully enumerate.
-- Vishnu Purana 2.5 
He that is Rama is Hrishikesa. He that is Achyuta is Ananta, the bearer of the earth. Both of those foremost of all creatures are celestial and endued with celestial prowess. One of them is armed with the discus and the other with the plough.
-- Mahabharata 1.147 
Symbolism and Representation
When the S'esa Naga Ananta Deva with His thousand mouths is unable to recite the glories of the Devi....then how can I recite fully the Glories of Her?
-- Bhagavatam 8.20.1-37 
Sesha had various incarnations and descriptions.
His enormous size was captured in his titles: the thousand-hooded snake, a simple sobriquet;  the appellation Ananta, which means endless; and the thousand-headed lord of serpents, a full title.  Sesha's great size was also illustrated in the following passage:
Once on a time the mighty Garuda, the son of Kasyapa, was addressed by the deities in these words, 'Do thou, O puissant one, see if this one has any end!' ...
Though possessed of great energy and might, Garuda, however, failed to find out the end of this illustrious one who is identical with the Supreme Soul.
-- Mahabharata 1.147 
Ananta Sesha was white like the moon,  sometimes radiating white like flame,  and other times of a simple white complexion.  He wore garments of dark blue  or raiment of purple.  A wreath of golden jars covered his breast.  His eyes were wide,  and he wore a diadem and a brilliant white necklace.  Sesha carried a plow and a mace  or pestle.  His proud banner was a golden fan-palm. 
According to some sources, Ananta Sesha had seven huge heads,  but most specify that the dragon had a thousand heads,  or a thousand hooded heads,  each with a beautiful jewel that possessed such effulgence that it could illuminate the underworld.  Ananta's heads were ornamented with the blessed Indian cross (sometimes called the swastika cross),  and, on each head, he wore a single earring and a wreath over each brow. 
This being is called Ananta by the spirits of heaven, and is worshipped by sages and by gods... He wears a single ear-ring, a diadem, and wreath upon each brow; and shines like the white mountains topped with flame. He is clothed in purple raiment, and ornamented with a white necklace, and looks like another Kailasa, with the heavenly Ganga flowing down its precipices. In one hand he holds a plough, and in the other a pestle...
-- Vishnu Purana 2.5 
Sesha was sometimes represented as a human man with a thousand heads, dressed in purple and holding a plow and mace. 
Many depictions show Ananta Shesha supporting Vishnu, who reclined on the serpent like a couch or sat on top of his coiled-up body as he extended his hood over the deity.  Some works depicted the hood of Ananta as seven snake heads, each with a illuminating jewel. 
- Ananta Sesha was the cosmic serpent of Hindu mythology,  later also known in post-Vedic texts as the world serpent. 
- Ananta Sesha as the sovereign of all Naga. 
- He had venom and the ability to spew fire. 
- After Kadru cursed her own children, the Naga,  Ananta Sesha withdrew from his brethren and did penance and practiced austerities. 
- For his many virtues and dedications, Brahma entreated Sesha to support the earth and keep it steady. 
- Ananta Sesha bears the entire world on his head, like a crown. 
- The great serpent helped churn the Ocean of Milk,  to produce the amrita. 
- Vishnu rests on Ananta Sesha, who acts as his vessel in the cosmic sea. 
- Writers use Ananta Sesha to illustrate endurance,  time,  and piousness. 
- Bhagavatam 1.2.6-10
- Bhagavatam 3.2.20-30
- Bhagavatam 3.4.1-20
- Bhagavatam 8.20.1-37
- Bhagavatam 9.38.7-79
- Bhagavatam 9.41.48-59
- Cotterell 238
- Mahabharata 1.36
- Mahabharata 1.147
- Mahabharata 4.2
- National Geographic [Essential] 312
- Rose [Dragons] 16
- Rose [Dragons] 17
- Turner 258
- Turner 281
- Turner 421
- Vishnu Purana 2.5
- Vishnu Purana 5.17
- Vishnu Purana 5.25
- Vogel 25
- Vogel 27
- Vogel 29
- Vogel 36
- Vogel 49
- Vogel 57
- Vogel 76
- Vogel 91
- Vogel 92
- Vogel 104
- Vogel 192
- Vogel 193
- Vogel 194
- Vogel 195
- Vogel 198
- Vogel 199
- Willis 71
- Turner 398
- Vogel 75
- Leeming 253
- Leeming 254
- Rose [Dragons] 133
- Turner 69
- Krishna Part II
- Bhagavatam 2.12.7-18
- Turner 319
- Turner 440
- Turner 442
- Turner 306
For more information on footnotes and references, please see the bibliography.